I started playing around with mandalas last August, using them to bring focus and form to my life after a fairly chaotic summer of dropped habits and too many new things to process.
They also gave me the opportunity to try different techniques like drawing, painting, photography and photoshop.
I have ten now, and I’m thinking of continuing the project in moments of leisure. Each of them is fairly personal, a visual prayer or meditation, or an attempt to create a sense of order from disparate ideas.
I’m cautious of sharing these with too much explanation. The whole point of them is to transcend words alone and I prefer to leave the looker to find their own thing to take away. I’ve just limited the words to a title and an epithet.
I’m 15 years old, a schoolboy, and I’m walking onto a patch of light cast in a school courtyard by a street lamp.
The tarmac is black, the light is yellow and I’m seeing both colours simultaneously from the same surface. I register the matter of one and the energy of the other with no sense of duality. Perhaps that is what cuts me free for this moment in time. Because suddenly I have a taste of something for which there is no name: ‘contentment’, ‘awareness’, ‘union’ or ‘bliss’ could be used clumsily.
Maybe it’s just that I actually feel ‘happy’, and this is the new definition for that word.
I imagine that a bit of dust is caught in the groove of my life, causing the needle to skip back and replay those ten steps I take through the light, again and again, forever – it would be enough for me.
I am aware of other things that make the moment perfect. It is not anticipated or sought after, and it has not been added to by memory.
My shoes have rhythm – I wear black lace ups like Fred Astaire – and my limbs are supple and relaxed. This patch of light is triangulated upon three loci that are especially significant to my coagulating sense of identity: bordered on one side by the churchyard wall, a stone’s throw from the parish church, 50 paces from the school theatre and 30 paces from the English department. I belong here; this is my territory.
Place and time have come together. I am the lord of the night air and the emperor of this pool of light. I spin around on my heels, walk backwards for a few paces, rejoicing.
The dark receives me again and I walk on, down the hill towards the boarding house.
Moments that are impossible to recreate, unasked-for, not divorced from the past or the future but somehow complete in the present, as if some prankster balanced a bucket of grace on the lintel of a doorway and I was the fool that got drenched – I think this is how happiness is for us.
About twenty years later, I’m lying in bed.
I’m constructing the argument I should have made earlier in the day during a conversation. It feels water tight. I’ve started with a couple of ethical givens and I’m going through the logical steps to my conclusion.
But the steps are also taking me to the edge of sleep, and suddenly I’m there, toeing the border line. My internal dialogue stops but it’s as if I step onto the platonic form of all arguments in all times and places and continue. Vividly in my mind I see a ruler stretching over an abyss and a dividing compass pacing along it.
When the compass gets to the end of the ruler, I see something else that lasts for a couple of seconds. It’s like the dot of light that would shrink and disappear in the moments after turning off an old television set. But I see it with my whole being, as if my mind has become a single organ of sight.
In that moment, I KNOW all the answers to everything: all paradoxes and problems that have befuddled humans for millenia. I have the answer to the problem of evil, the resolution of determinism vs. free will, the goal of every koan, the last word on why we are here at all. I feel what it’s like to be omniscient for the tiniest sliver of a moment, and then it flits away into the abyss.
I pull myself back into wakefulness to see if I’ve been able to retain any of the knowledge, but the moment was too short for my memory to turn it into brain-code and store it. Nevertheless I feel a soaring sense of contentment. It’s enough for me to know that the answers DO exist and that they are real.
The afterglow of that revelation lasts to this day.
I’ve started 2015 trying to finish reading a few books that have been on my ‘current’ shelf for too long, and I’ve set myself an ambitious reading list for the year. I’m also trying to revive the discipline of writing a brief personal response on finishing a book.
While I have still not decided what to say about Whitman’s ‘Leaves of Grass’ (which it feels almost sacrilegious to comment on) and Giordano Bruno’s ‘De Umbris Idearum’ (which I probably need to re-read), or how to comment best on a couple of – excellent – books authored by friends of mine, I’ve found something to say about some other recent reads.
One of the few things I can conclude from this book is that neither the brothers Grimm nor the good people who narrated these tales to them were sober at the time. That doesn’t negate the work as a pretty extraordinary record of the dark, moralistic, occasionally humorous but rarely original landscape of 19th century German folklore.
Grimm seems to be back in vogue at the moment, in Hollywood, in fresh anthologies of fan fiction, in a counter-movement to ‘disneyfication’. Many of these tales certainly beg to be retold and made relevant in our day. Some of them are downright funny and have great punchlines. A few of them provide novel variations on stories we think we know. Most of them simply recombine the same tropes like cards drawn at random from a deck of superstitions.
In the world of Grimm you must be kind and generous and it’s even more to your credit if you are poor; beautiful people are good and ugly people are evil; you should avoid forests and bodies water, especially if you are a child; you can generally trust elderly people; women are either barren or remarkably fecund; children should respect their parents and compete against their siblings for their affection; parents shouldn’t spoil their children; life is pretty cheap; cunning always prevails against brute force and being a smart arse is admirable. Given how much these values are at odds with those of the 21st century I’m at a loss to explain the revival of interest …
Charles Williams’ take on Church History: I found it much harder to understand than his book “Witchcraft”, which feels rather like a companion to this work. Nevertheless, I glimpsed much through the shifting clouds of his prose, and what I saw, I liked. Williams does this in his fiction as in his non-fiction: he sees the whole of reality in a different way and hardly bothers to spell it out for his readers. You sort of go along for the ride and the stuff he says about the passing vistas makes you see them as he does for a few breathless moments that seem to invoke a Jungian sense of ‘oneness’.
On discovering huge gaps in my understanding of classical thought, literature and history, I have only been provoked to read more and explore further. Centrally, though, I’m broadly comforted by Williams’ essential recasting of the bloody, shameful and dark moments in Christian history. His vision enables him to discern God at work in diverse and contradictory movements, frequently pitted against each other. Central to this is his unique theological formulation of ‘co-inherence’ – that process by which humankind incubates the Kingdom of God.
There is a lot of assumed knowledge he expects in his readers, which makes some parts of the text almost inaccessible to those outside the orbit of his intellect (including me). However, a bit of background in Williams’ theology, namely the formulations of co-inherence and the ‘Way of Affirmation’ versus the ‘Negative Way’, will open up much of this to a new reader, as will a prior reading of Dante’s ‘The Divine Comedy’.
I will strive to be equal to a second reading of this book when I come to it, and in the meantime I have copied out a good few of Williams’ perfectly turned phrases to chew on and extended my reading list for the coming year.
Before reading this book, all I knew about chaos theory came from reading Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently novels back in my teens. After reading it, I don’t feel as if I know a great deal more. Obviously chaos is hard for a non-mathematician to fathom, and this book needs a rudimentary grasp of a lot of related concepts which it only mentions.
It does a good job of surveying the history and development of chaos theory with specific reference to the important pieces of research and the people who published them. All the ways that chaos theory touches into economics, biology, physics, engineering and other fields is given a broad treatment.
As I tried to wrap my mind around the text, it would have been helpful to have some diagrams – it’s a ‘graphic’ guide after all. But the illustrations were abstract and pretty unhelpful. They consisted mostly of collage-style cartoons of people with romano cabbages instead of hair, interacting with scribbly representations of strange-attractor curves and a model chart of fish population growth. I can see how the gradual incorporation of different elements in the collages reflected the addition of new concepts as the book progressed, but they didn’t really shed new light on the topic. It feels like a missed opportunity to clarify things with good graphic material. ‘Strange attractors’ seem to be really important to the whole thing, but I felt that they were glossed in the early sections and still don’t quite get it.
However, I managed to grasp the stuff on fractals, time, turbulence, markets and there were a few moments when the penny dropped in spite of the brevity of the text and the obscurity of the illustrations. I have also found my awareness of chaos has expanded and I’m more likely to spot it at work and factor it into the way I see the world around me – this is a good thing. I have another book in the series – on fractals specifically – to read next, and I’m looking forward to it.
Although it was published in 2006, and social and online business networking has moved on very rapidly since then, there are still many useful parts in this book. Plenty of it’s predictions have come true and the overall vision of a global family is still working itself out.
I read it partly as an interesting documentary on the state of social networks back in the days when they were less populated, and partly as a handy guide to the practicalities of networking. Advice on setting up profiles, branding, developing an open and generous attitude (rather than only selling) and the bits on team and personality profiling were all good to chew on.
Lots of case studies and stories keep the interest going, but it has dated quite a lot in the last 7 years.
Over the last couple of years, my way of processing life and pondering the world around me has increasingly been mediated through symbols. Writing systems, pictograms, allegories and icons are the currency of my imagination. With symbols I can do more than words allow. I have a developed a personal pictography, a kind of shorthand, drawing from many sources and referenced to particular meanings.
I’m well past making new year’s resolutions but I’ve always taken time to focus on taking stock of the passing year and feeling out the themes of the coming year round this time. In prayer and contemplation for 2015, it seemed three things and a fourth were being emphasised.
Having worked out glyphs for these emphases, I noticed that each of them had a common element – a cross – enabling me to combine them into a single form.
So here is the glyph I mark upon the doorposts of 2015.
It’s component parts are thus:
This is the symbol for Saturn. In esoteric systems, Saturn has a very complex variety of correspondences. But, to keep it simple Saturn was the Greek god of agriculture and the symbol contains two elements: a cross (or sword) and a sickle. It can be taken to represent the harvest: things must die and come to an end but in that moment seeds are gathered for sowing in the next cycle.
Of course, to be saturnine is to be gloomy, but, to borrow from the Christian imagery of the cross, the words of the Son of God are appropriate.
“I assure you: Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains by itself. But if it dies, it produces a large crop.” (John 12:24 HCSB)
I’ve noted that the last few years have been characterised by a lack of finishing. I enter 2015 with so many projects begun and not completed. An unfulfilled intention, a work half done, can become rotten. I need to put the sickle in and finish many things so that new life can come. 2015 is to be a year of finishing.
Encapsulated here in one of the many alchemical symbols for gold is something I need to bring back to the centre. Truth, like gold can be tested by fire, bears no combination with other elements and stays unchanged.
I’m a people pleaser. This means I all too easily try to give others the answer I think they want to hear. That’s not always realistic. I’ve a creeping habit of white lies: “Of course, it’s no problem.” “I’ll be there at six.” “It will be fine.” “I’ll be thinking of you.”
These are not loving, respectful interjections unless they are true. Even if it arises from the best will in the world, I need to curb my optimism at times and let my ‘yes’ actually mean ‘yes’.
“Truth, like gold, is to be obtained not by its growth, but by washing away from it all that is not gold.” (Leo Tolstoy)
This is a symbol I’ve invented to use for the concept of praxis – an antidote to inwardness. It depicts a sword, internally rooted but driving outwards to act externally. For me, Praxis doesn’t oppose contemplation but means something like a ‘contemplation by doing’ and it’s closely allied to the philosopher’s ‘techne’ – practical craft.
I owe this new emphasis to the lessons I’ve been studying in alchemy over recent months. The alchemist performs processes – burning, boiling, distilling – all the while observing diligently the transformation of substances without missing the correspondences with his own soul-work.
It’s surprising I never really took to science at school. I don’t think I ever made the connection between what we did in the classroom and the fact that my den in the garage hosted a fossil collection and pendulums that hung from the ceiling to study gravity and waves. I had exercise books full of notes and measurements of such things as the landing positions of sticks thrown at random. I tried to replicate the experiments of Mendel in my flower bed. I was just a little Issac Newton, but schooling cast me as an ‘arts person’.
I don’t think our education system encourages the formation of a renaissance mind, and more is the pity.
In 2015 the world and my self will be my laboratory. I want to do real stuff in the real world and watch it closely and learn all I can from it instead of from books.
And the fourth thing
Although not depicted, this underpins all of them. It’s ‘momentum‘.
I’m poor at keeping momentum. If things are going well, I cruise or put my attention elsewhere, so they grind to a halt. This goes for creative projects, relationships, work and home life. Things are not finished. Wishful thinking swallows up reality. Praxis collapses back into theoria.
It’s easier in the long run to keep the wheels turning with tactical doses of effort than to be repeatedly frustrated by inertia.
I think we could all learn a lot from the Double Rainbow Guy. If you’ve not seen and heard his now famous three and a half minutes of ecstasy, click and watch it NOW.
Listen carefully as he sobs: “What does it mean?”
Just like the rest of us walking upright on this planet with large brains, and suffering wisdom teeth and the threat of appendicitis, for Rainbow Guy (aka Yosemitebear) a rainbow is never just a rainbow. It has to mean something. Stories are fables, and planets are gods and goddesses, and homes are castles, and every picture tells a story, and a girl tucking a wisp of hair behind her ear actually fancies you.
Our tendency to attribute meaning makes life rich and it makes us human. We must allow ourselves to be in dialogue with everything our senses encounter. I think philosophy has big words for this kind of stuff: existential phenomenology, personal mythos, cosmogony… but let us be spared them as I unfold ‘the secret language of twigs’.
A man that looks on glass, On it may stay his eye; Or if he pleaseth, through it pass, And then the heaven espy. (George Herbert)
At first I noticed how different species have distinctive ways of growing that give rise to endless variations within the parameters of their genes. The elder speaks with one set of forms, and the beech with another. And then, a whole world opened up to me that means walking in the woods will never be the same again.
Divided Way – The most common and fundamental form of branch. Growth divides and divides again to the left and right. Even choosing not to make a choice is itself a choice.
A choice! Do you, my listener, know how to express in a single word anything more magnificent? Do you realize, even if you were to discuss year in and year out how you could mention nothing more awesome than a choice, what it is to have choice! For though it is certainly true that the ultimate blessing is to choose rightly, yet the faculty of choice itself is still the glorious prerequisite. (Soren Kierkegaard)
The top of a wayfarer’s staff often has a fork in it; how many times must a traveller decide between two paths?
Flip it over and you have a confluence of two ways. I’m more aware of divergence than confluence in life. The latter happens so quietly but suddenly you find that someone else is with you, or two creative ideas have joined to make a third.
The Third Way – lest we forget that choices are not always ‘either/or’. If I find myself trying to decide between two things, the question I often forget to ask is: “Is there a third way?”
I don’t mean a ‘middle way’, but there’s almost always another option that evades us when we are double bound and damned if we do or don’t do one thing or another.
Other people often present us with an either/or, forestalling our capacity to step back and think creatively whether there’s a potential we’ve missed. That third way may even be to do nothing.
We also have here the footprint of a bird, a creature of the air that has come down to feed on a creature of the earth (a worm). Earth is marked by its feet in a way that air is never marked by its wings … ponder this.
The Bow – sacred in human culture from our hunter-gatherer ancestors onward and right across the face of the earth: for hunting, making war and making music.
In the Bible, when God attributes meaning to the rainbow, the original language refers to her ‘battle bow’.
I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. (Genesis 9:13)
It foretells the hope that the instruments of war will be beaten into plowshares and become tools for nurture instead of destruction.
In numerous mythologies, the heavenly bow is a bridge between the sphere of mortal struggle and the paradise of rest and peace. In Bantu cosmology, it is created by the dance of seven snakes. So, once again, Yosemitebear is not such a fool.
Fe – the first rune of the ancient scandanavian ‘futhark’, signifying wealth and plenty.
‘Wealth’ meant something very different to the inventors of the runic alphabets. It was probably quantifiable in cattle. While we owe a lot of our letter shapes and sounds to these forebears, we may have lost their understanding of wealth. Mine is a number on a screen that pops up after I’ve typed a few passwords and memorable numbers on a keyboard.
When this twig cracked under my foot it seemed to shout in twig-speak: “We are wealth! We are woods, and water, and weather! Wait and listen!” So I did. And all I could hear in the the trees was this: “Ffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffffff…” – a continuous whisper of plenty.
Vav – the sixth letter of the Hebrew alphabet, whose pictographic meaning is ‘hook’ or peg. Curiously its equivalent in our alphabet is also … ‘F’ – both in sound and numerical value.
As the very simplest single stroke of a pen or brush, this letter shape has been associated with one-ness and, as a sinuous curve from top to bottom, it has also been taken to represent the flow of revelation from heaven to earth.
Without needing to go down a kabbalist rabbit hole, I’ve found this form deeply appealing since the moment I tried to create it perfectly with a calligraphy pen several months ago.
I think the idea of ‘unity’ encompasses its meaning very well: flowing together, once again, between air and earth, my feet of clay and my wings of aether. All that I do belongs to flying or digging and the art of living is to do both at once: to pray as I work.
Tau – 19th letter of the Greek alphabet, final letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
Saint Francis used this (the Tau cross) as his signature and it is fitting that this little alder twig should say his name to us, because he called the Sun his brother and the Moon his sister and was mindful of all living things.
For this reason I have a slight preference for this as a sign of Christ’s cross over the traditional form (which all too readily becomes a sword). This is the final letter, the end of present tyranny and the reconciliation of the whole created order.
The Dancer – let the trees of the field clap their hands!
Not only did I find this exultant shape in the woods but it also looks very similar to the lines on my left palm, where I recently discovered the stick figures of two dancing people.
Maybe I’ll show them to you one day. But I’d like to end this epistle of the woods and hedgerows with a few words from the bard himself:
Now, my co-mates and brothers in exile, Hath not old custom made this life more sweet Than that of painted pomp? Are not these woods More free from peril than the envious court? Here feel we but the penalty of Adam, The seasons’ difference; as, the icy fang And churlish chiding of the winter’s wind, Which, when it bites and blows upon my body, Even till I shrink with cold, I smile and say ‘This is no flattery: these are counsellors That feelingly persuade me what I am.’ Sweet are the uses of adversity, Which like the toad, ugly and venomous, Wears yet a precious jewel in his head; And this our life exempt from public haunt, Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, Sermons in stones, and good in every thing. I would not change it. (As You Like It, Act 2 Scene I)
If you enjoyed this, you might like to read more of my ‘Wisdom of Things Found’ posts:
Although this is supposed to be a ‘writers blog’ it tends to be a repository for the things I don’t write: the stuff I do when I should be writing. When I do find the time to actually do some writing (for myself), I often find all my brain wants to do is mess about and compose nonsense. I find this incredibly easy and profoundly satisfying.
Really, ‘nonsense’, of the sort that Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear gave us, leaves a much wider space for readers or listeners’ imaginations to play in. It harps upon this beautiful feature of human languages: with syntax, sound and context we are more than half way to understanding meaning. Who the hell needs vocabulary?
I have ‘artists envy’ for folks who seem to be able to finish stuff.
When it comes to creativity, I can go some way with the saying “It’s more about the journey than the destination,” but surely the full miracle of creative work is in that breathless moment when you can stand back and say, “It’s done.” That’s the elusive hit we’re really looking for. Something is not created until it’s completed and a thing, be it a sculpture, picture, story or performance, stands where before there was no thing.
I think some of us are scared to finish. As long as a work is in progress, it has the potential to be awesome. Once it’s done, it’s either awesome or not. I’m certainly scared to finish things. I trail so many works-in-progress, the drag can be crippling.
This week I’ve been rescued by a little thing called Six Minute Story. I wouldn’t have given it the time of day if not for the suggestion of one of those artists I envy, Xe Sands, who is such a sparkling enthusiast for creativity in general and words in particular that not going along with something she’s excited about would feel like telling a kid that she couldn’t have an ice cream.
Six Minute Story gives you a random writing prompt and a box in which you have just six minutes to write a story. And that’s it … If it doesn’t work out, you can hit refresh and try again.
It’s heady stuff. You go from nothing to done in less time than it takes to hang out the laundry. It’s helped me to write a few stand-alone bites that I’m moderately happy about and to experience repeatedly the breathless moment of “It’s done.”
Throughout September, Xe’s ‘Going Public Project‘, which propagates contributed recordings of literature from the public domain and creative commons, is showing off stuff from Six Minute Story. Anyone can get involved even if, like me, you thought writing prompts were twee and ‘flash fiction’ was not quite ‘proper’.
I’m pretty stoked because this week’s post features a snippet of Xe’s voice doing my words and frankly that’s another tick on my bucket list.
So, my writerly readers, go here to start your own six-minute adventure. Or go here to listen to this week’s offerings and find out more about the Going Public Six Minute Story September challenge.